It is hard to fail to notice the increasing number of news headlines tackling with the issue of race in the UK. Be it UKIP’s flagrancy or the treatment of Black British footballers, to Lenny Henry’s campaign to increase the diversity of those in front of (and behind) the camera on our TV screens AND in the media industry as a whole the debate is hot and as a British Woman of Colour, is of extreme importance to me.
When I started my blog back in 2011 – the strapline “Black. British. Beautiful. Proud.” instantly dropped into my heart. Little did I know how important those four words would become to me.
Over these past couple of years, the representation of Women of colour in the media, the urgent requirement for our voices to be heard and the need to have a candid and open conversation about the topic of being a British Woman of Colour has become a defining part of my outlook.
I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that this conversation, with all stakeholders making a contribution – Women of colour, Caucasian women, those in the media, those in key positions in other sectors and institutions, young women, older women…and men too – is absolutely vital to begin to resolve these issues.
So…welcome to my BPL Talks series – a collection of posts that will host this “conversation”. The posts may be deemed controversial by some, others may feel that the conversation should not even be taking place at all …because we do not should ‘see colour’ right??
However, I believe that the solution is in the dialogue – dialogue being the operative word. Talking to each other, hearing each other out and listening with intent. (For more on this topic watch this!)
The first post in this series is an interview with Sally Kneeshew, the White, English mother of a child of mixed heritage called Georgina, who is 15 years old.
I had the privilege of meeting both Sally and Georgina at the 2014 WOW workshop ‘Being Mixed Race’ which was hosted by Emma Dabiri and co-organised by Sally.
As I mentioned in a previous post, this workshop was extremely moving – and the topic of identity and hair came up on a number of occasions.
I was intrigued by the stories – especially those told by the White mothers – of the challenges they faced looking after their child’s afro-textured hair and the shame embarrassment and loneliness they experienced and I knew I just had to share their story, so I approached Sally at the end of the event and asked her if she would be willing to share her experiences and that of her daughter too – and she graciously agreed!
Her story is below – do let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment or tweeting me!
About Sally and Georgina
Sally Kneeshaw is founder and director of a consultancy specialising in innovation, sustainability and inclusion. Her career spans over 25 years in the public and private sectors working on strategic policy development for the European Commission, European cities, interregional programmes, international networks and NGOs.
She has been the Lead Expert of the Electric Vehicles in Europe network and co-author of recent reports on urban mobility and entrepreneurship in Europe. Sally’s current portfolio includes knowledge management and capacity building for URBACT, the European city networks programme.
Sally is the mother of a mixed race teenage daughter and co-facilitator of the WOW Being Mixed Race workshop.
Web and blog: kneeshawconsulting.com
Georgina Gonzalez is a Year 10 pupil at Dunraven School an aspiring scientist, dancer and mistress of procrastination!
My daughter is now 15 years old. I am White English/Irish with straight brown hair.
Her Dad is black Cuban. Her hair is Type 3c , very thick with tight corkscrew curls. It tends to grow big, not long. We have only ever had the ends trim a few times, and it is now just past shoulder length.
BPL: What were your feelings about managing your daughter’s hair before she was born? Was this something that you even thought about?
SK: To be honest I can’t remember even thinking about her hair before she was born, apart from to wonder what he/she (we didn’t know the sex in advance) would look like generally. What the baby would look like, if it would be born with lots of dark curly hair or a few wisp. There was great anticipation for a very wanted child.
BPL: What were the most challenging experiences that you had?
SK: Without a doubt the most challenging and traumatic experience for both of us was when my daughter got head lice at primary school. There were recurrent bouts at school, and we would dread getting the letter in the book bag asking parents to look carefully though their child’s hair. On the few occasions when she did have them it involved several hours of going thorough all her head systematically, trying to get the fine tooth comb through it, and make sure we got rid of any lice and eggs. Horrible! I would then lather her hair with any product marketed as a preventative, such as tea tree oil.
Other challenges have been to try to be gentle with her hair, to not dry it out or damage it, and to find ways to style it that make her feel beautiful. In more recent years I have been determined to resist her requests for straightening/relaxing. My line is that she can do what she wants with her hair as an adult but until then my job is to look after it, which means no harsh or damaging treatments.
BPL: Product selection – how did you navigate the many product options that are available?
SK: We live in Lambeth, near Brixton, so there is no problem with access to Afro-Caribbean hair products although trying to find the ones that are gentle/ organic is not so easy. It has been a bit of a minefield trying to figure what to use, with lots of trial and error. Even when we started going to Adornment – a fantastic natural hair salon – it took a while for them to find the right products – ones not too heavy like the shea butter based/oil ones that left her hair heavy and greasy, and also affected her skin. I have a bathroom cabinet full of barely used, discarded products! And they are not cheap!
BPL: Who were able to ask for hair management advice? Did you ever ask a Black woman? If yes, what was her response?
SK: I didn’t have anyone around to ask really. My in-laws all live in Cuba and have certain ways of caring for and styling hair that are culturally specific, and very constrained by lack of availability of products. We have always visited regularly and they often want to straighten her hair, by blow-drying it or with straighteners, and I have reluctantly agreed, because we are on holiday and it was a way of them bonding and her being close to her grandma and aunties and cousins.
Georgina’s dad has very different hair- tight black curls. When she was little he would enjoy styling her hair with lots of bobbles and clips and ribbons, as his Latin Princess!
Finding Adornment was great, as the hair professionals there took the time to explain Georgina’s hair type to her, and in particular gave advice about how to keep it hydrated, wearing a cap at night etc. She has the ends trimmed and a ‘Rainforest’ conditioner there every few months. When we first went it helped that it is a trendy place, which made Georgina feel special and grown up and part of a community of natural beauty.
I have never had any hesitation stopping people in the street if their hair looks like Georgina’s to ask them how they look after their hair and what products they use.
In the last two years she is taking over at the wheel on her own hair journey and been teaching herself, looking online at YouTube videos mostly from the US. She now understands the different hair types, how to stretch it, so it is now growing longer. She spends a lot of time on it, twists it at night and puts a cap on.
BPL: Were you/are you cognisant of the connection between a Person of Colour’s hair and their overall identity? How did this apply to your daughter (if at all)?
SK:To be honest I have become much more aware about this whole issue since I became friendly with some African Americans who are very fond of my daughter and keen to make sure she has a healthy self image.
She always wanted her hair to be long and straight and to feel it blowing the wind.
This is the dominant vision of beauty for little girls, from Disney princesses to fashion features. It continues now in her teenage years, with hair straightening the norm. Many of her peers straighten their hair every day before school. She already has strong views about the invisibility and perceived unattractiveness of black women, and thinks that some boys and men will not want to date her because of her colour.
She tries to make her hair look as ‘small’ and tidy as possible. It is always tied back or up. I love it curly and big, and hope she will embrace that look later in life. She would wear her hair down more if the curls stayed defined, but often they end up frizzing, especially in humidity.
I never want to say her hair is difficult, in spite of the fact it takes an awful long time to look after. I always try to say it takes time and effort, rather than using negative language. But when I am running out of the shower and can comb/dry my hair in 10 minutes flat she sighs with envy.
BPL: What do you know now about your daughter’s hair now, that you had wished you had known before?
SK: I wish I had more information and advice, from professionals, from the net, from clued up Mums and Dads. It’s important to realise all the very different hair types of mixed heritage kids, that all require different products and handling. I wish I could have offered my daughter more possibilities to create different styles for her hair.
Some advice from Sally!:
– Don’t go to a regular white hairdresser. They might pretend to know what they are doing, but it is much better to go to a specialist salon
– Learn the importance of hydration and conditioning, sorting out split ends, different possibilities for styling including twists.
– Look at what they are doing in the US. With a larger population of African Americans and women of color, the market is more advanced and there is lots on YouTube.
It’s taken a long time for me to get to grips with my hair and to properly understand how to look after it. Having mixed hair and a white mum is not always easy. But I love the fact that my mum loves my hair and is both curious and conscious about it and cares about me having effective hair care routines. To be honest, I am only recently starting to understand how to maintain my hair and keep it healthy.
When I was little I mainly remember my hair being very ‘poofy’ and that if it was in plaits by the start of the day, by the end they would be frizzy. I realise now that it was very dry as we didn’t put enough hydrating product on. My hair routine was simply a spray with water and conditioner and a Pippi Longstocking style of gravity defying plaits. We never tied it up at night and I didn’t have a satin scarf.
As Mum mentioned earlier I’m now guilty of getting a whole tub of hair cream to then in the first use to discover it doesn’t work for me leading to the bathroom cupboard filled with endless amounts of tubs with a few finger dips in them. When my Mum started first taking me to Adornment was when I first was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing with my hair and it was a great relief. Also I can now watch videos and visit blogs on how to take care of my hair and as a result my hair is much more moisturised and healthy than ever before. Thank god for the internet.
Thank you so much Sally and Georgina!